When I was a child, I loved reading so much that my mother had to pry me away from my books to get me to eat meals. As a result, I was able to maintain A’s in all the reading-related subjects such as reading, English, spelling and vocabulary with virtually no study on my part. I devoured historical fiction, which gave me a frame of reference when I studied those time periods in history class. At the same time, formal history and geography study, which were separate subjects when I was young, would send me running to the library in search of more fiction and non-fiction to satisfy my curiosity about ancient Egypt or Tudor England. I was always near the top of my class in those subjects, and perhaps if I had read biographies of Louis Pasteur or Archimedes, I might have scored higher grades in science and math. My own experience attests that one of the least painful ways to give your children’s academic life a power-boost is to foster a love of recreational reading.
Although we sometimes discussed what I was reading, my mom and dad never really questioned my choice of books borrowed from the school library or the young reader section of the public library. How times have changed! Parents I speak to want their children to love books, but understandably hesitate to allow them to choose randomly from the stacks. They want to steer impressionable minds not only away from the tawdry and frivolous, but towards the wholesome and edifying. They are wise to be cautious. Here are a few simple ideas that may help you encourage reading from the earliest grades, keep thoughts turned toward wholesome pursuits, and instill a lifelong love of books in your children.
Start with the Seton Reading List
At the back of the reading section of the lesson plans, parents will find a reading list by grade. (Encourage your friends, homeschooling or otherwise, who are not enrolled with Seton to use this same list found in the “Parent Resources” section of the Seton website.) The books are broken down by category and this list is a great place to start. If your child loves one book by a particular author, by all means search out others by the same author. Some may be out of print, but used copies can be found on Amazon. Others you can request from the library system. Not only do you get the book you want, but the library will see a demand for more wholesome offerings.
Trust the Catholic Anthologies
Seton students receive the Faith and Freedom Readers as part of the regular curriculum and our book list recommends the American Cardinal Readers. Formal “readers” are out of favor in some quarters of home education with parents claiming that their children should read “real” books. Of course, the stories and poems in the readers are real, and most of them are of a very high quality. If your student enjoys a particular piece, again, seek out more work from the same author or in the same genre. I read “The Bishop’s Candlesticks” in a reader in 7th grade, and loved it so much that I read Les Miserables, all 1200 pages of it, the same year.
Watch the Date
One of the reasons I feel confident recommending authors from The Faith and Freedom Readers and The American Cardinal Readers is that both sets were compiled before the social revolution of the late 1960’s when the world was a more wholesome place to grow up, and that’s putting it mildly! Virtually all the children’s literature that was published prior to 1965 is safe and satisfying reading material for your children.
That is not to say that works published after that time are uniformly inappropriate; many are very fine, but prudent parents must exercise caution. There are several websites that can be a big help in this regard, and do not hesitate to tell the librarian that your family cherishes traditional values and ask his or her opinion. Finally, it is a good idea to browse through the pages yourself before turning it over to your child.
Consider Universal Themes rather than Social Relevance
One particularly erroneous attitude from our own times is that literature must deal with current social issues in order to be relevant. Modern books often deal with politically correct notions of sexism, racism, and so-called gay rights. Contemporary children’s literature is overflowing with stories about gangs, sports and entertainment figures, bullying, “mean” girls, and promiscuity, all thought to be “high-interest” to modern youth. As many of us pulled our children out of institutional schools to limit exposure to these less savory aspects of our culture, wise parents will look to develop their children’s interest along other lines.
Themes like acceptance, faithfulness, ambition, and industriousness are found again and again in the best children’s literature. The reader is not hit over the head with the values, but rather is allowed to discover the message from the story itself, fostering thoughtful intellectual growth. The obviously contrived plots of much that passes for young adult literature, at best, encourage lazy minds and fuzzy thinking. The themes of great literature are timeless.
Make Reading a Priority
Some children, often but not always boys, are reluctant recreational readers. They drag their heels. It’s tough enough to get them to finish assigned school reading, much less get them to curl up with a book during free time! Here are some ideas to pique their interest:
- Read to your children starting in infancy. Often school age children still love to hear Mom and Dad read.
- Make a trip to the library part of your family’s weekly routine from the children’s earliest years. Steady exposure to books fosters curiosity.
- Turn off the TV and the video games. Left to their own devices, many young people will waste hours on these mindless pursuits. Wise parents must intervene.
- Give good books as birthday and Christmas gifts.
- Reluctant readers often struggle with reading fluency. It is more important that your children read daily than that they read books at a particular grade level. By all means, allow your children to pick books that they can read easily. Once they develop the actual skill of reading, they will seek more demanding stories on their own.
- Give the good example of reading yourself. Young people who see their parents reading books, magazines, and newspapers are more likely to pick up the habit themselves.
- Finally, set aside some time each day for reading, perhaps the last hour before bedtime.
Choose Books Wisely
Many parents want their children to read from a particular genre because they consider it the most developmentally advantageous. Certainly, some books are better than others, but if the idea is to develop an enthusiasm for reading, parents should look for high interest. Elementary age boys, for example, absolutely love adventure and mystery stories, so choose fiction from these categories. Many also enjoy biographies, especially of exciting historical figures life Ethan Allen or Andrew Jackson. Younger boys like humorous stories like the Eddie series by Carolyn Haywood and the Henry Huggins series by Beverly Cleary. My own sons loved science fiction and continued to read it into their adult years.
Girls seem to enjoy historical literature and learning how people lived in other times and places. They often will follow favorite characters through a whole series of books like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.
Although I usually discourage TV and movie watching, careful choices will often be a springboard for reading. If your child loved the movie Little Women, find Louisa May Alcott at the library. My girls saw the Anne of Green Gables series on PBS after reading the books and argued endlessly about the relative merits of the TV series versus the book. Watching Gettysburg, Becket, or A Man for All Seasons might encourage a young person to follow up for more information at the library. Carefully choosing electronic entertainment can foster the recreational reading habit.
Buying used books and borrowing books from friends, family and the library can keep the cost of reading quite reasonable. A small investment of money and a pleasure-filled investment of time will have an enormous payoff for your children.